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Reagan to ask Council

Tuesday, July 10, 2001 by

To overturn SRB rulings

Review board votes for competitors on four cases

Attorney John Joseph of Minter, Joseph & Thornhill, said Monday that Reagan National Advertising has asked the City Council to reverse decisions made by the Sign Review Board ( SRB) last week allowing Reagan’s competitors to keep city permits for billboards that replace Reagan’s signs. Reagan, which controls about 45 percent of the billboards in Austin, had asked the review board to overturn decisions by city staff granting permits to two smaller companies for replacement billboards, but Reagan’s arguments were rejected in all four cases.

The board decided last month that Reagan would have standing to appeal permits granted to the Acme Sign Company and Capitol Outdoor Advertising (see In Fact Daily, June 19, 2001). The city’s sign ordinance, which was written with the twin goals of reducing the total number of billboards and opening the market to competition, allows signs to be repaired or replaced only under certain conditions. These include requiring that the replacement sign have a smaller surface area than the original and that it be of similar construction and design as the original. In these cases, Reagan had been leasing the rights to put signs at three locations along Ben White and one near I-35, but those leases expired—or the landowner alleged a breach of contract—and leases were instead granted to Reagan’s competitors.

The first appeal the SRB heard was for the replacement billboard along I-35 on Cole Street. Acme Sign Company, represented by consultant Sarah Crocker, obtained that permit. Reagan, represented by Jeff Howard, appealed the permit for a replacement sign on several grounds: that the new sign would be taller than the original, that the cost for replacement would exceed that allowed by the city’s sign ordinance, and that the existing sign (owned by Reagan) was removed before the replacement permit was granted.

Crocker argued that her clients had estimated the height of the existing sign to the best of their ability and pointed out that even the sign’s owners had listed it at heights ranging from 59 feet to 67 feet. Howard admitted there had been some confusion about the height of the billboard since it was erected in 1977, but argued that his client’s failure to accurately list the billboard’s height on various permits obtained over the years was not relevant. “Acme has an obligation to make the replacement billboard of the same construction and design,” he told the board. “It means they’ve got to be at the same height. They have an obligation that wasn’t on my client when they made those erroneous estimations, and I admit they’re erroneous.”

Crocker argued that the permit application for the replacement billboard could be revised to reflect the actual height of the sign, noting that site plans and other documents are frequently revised. “All of Ms. Crocker’s experience doesn’t apply,” responded Howard. “It’s apples and oranges.”

One of the more contentious points of the meeting revolved around Reagan’s removal of the existing sign, which could affect Acme’s expenses for a replacement billboard. Such expenses are regulated by the sign ordinance. If they are too large a replacement sign is prohibited. “What this is about is that if Reagan didn’t get their lease and they didn’t get their sign, then nobody should get the sign,” Crocker told board members. Howard denied that the company had acted unfairly to limit competition. “If people are going to take Reagan’s signs, they ought to be required to follow the code,” he said.

After both sides had presented their cases, the board went into what would be the first of several executive sessions to consult with city legal staff. When they emerged, Chairman Herman Thun called for a motion, noting that the sign was up when Acme’s permit was originally filed—but was met with only silence. He then offered up his own motion to recognize Acme’s permit for a replacement sign, but to limit its height to 59 feet and limit construction costs to those provided in estimates by Acme. That motion passed 5-1 with Board Member Bruce Shelton opposed. Board Member Frank Fuentes was at the meeting but temporarily out of the room when the vote was taken. At a previous meeting, Fuentes had consistently voted to grant Reagan standing to appeal the permits and had also questioned Acme’s estimates for the cost of replacing the billboard.

The board considered the other three cases together. Reagan was appealing three permits granted to Capitol Outdoor for replacement billboards along Ben White. Discussion in those cases focused on the size of the face of the replacement billboards and the timing of the permit applications. Howard cited the replacement provisions in the sign ordinance. “The sign area has to be at least 25 percent smaller. That’s a minimum amount of reduction.” According to figures provided by Reagan on the size of two of the signs, the replacement signs would not meet that criterion. Attorney Thomas Davies, representing Capitol Outdoors, offered a different measurement of the signs while attempting to downplay the variations, referring to them as “nit-pick nonsense.”

After another executive session, board member Fuentes had several questions about Capitol Outdoor’s lease negotiations with the property owners and the timing of its permit applications. The board then went into a third executive session at Fuentes suggestion. When they emerged, Board MemberBetty Edgemond moved to grant Reagan’s appeal of the Capitol Outdoor permits, which Fuentes supported. But that motion failed on a vote of 3-4, with Board Member Barbara Aybar joining Edgemond and Fuentes. A subsequent motion by Thun to deny the appeals and limit areas and heights of the replacement signs passed on a vote of 5-2, with Edgemond and Fuentes opposed.

Representatives of the smaller billboard companies were happy with their victory. “The right decision was made,” said Norman Furley of Capitol Outdoor. Lucy Gallaghan, Manager of Zoning Review/Support, told In Fact Daily that staff has put an item on the July 19 City Council agenda, as requested by Reagan. At that time, she said, the Council will decide whether or not to hear the appeal. If a majority of the Council want to consider the matter, a hearing will be set for a later date, she said.

Landmark Commission to keep

Tourism advisory subcommittee

Heritage marketing still important

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) have agreed to keep a heritage tourism subcommittee but to make its role more advisory in nature.

Commissioner Jim Fowler, who chairs the tourism subcommittee, said the group had its origins in a day when the commission had a more direct role in how the city's bed tax funds would be used to promote historic tourism. The Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB) would bring the people to town and the HLC would decide what those people would see once they got here, Fowler said.

The commission had a direct role in authorizing, directing and approving certain marketing items such as banners and brochures, Fowler said. Recently, however, the committee has not had that function. Commissioners acknowledged it was time to regroup and redirect the committee.

“In the past the Landmark Commission would have input and oversight and approval authority of the budget being administered by ACVB,” said HLC Chair Lauretta Dowd, who sits on the tourism subcommittee. Dowd went on to say that today’s tourism committee’s role should be more advisory. “I don't think reviewing brochures is the kind of detail that we need to be involved in. That’s not our function anymore. I think that's ACVB's staff work.”

Commissioner Lisa Laky, the newest member of the tourism committee, was uncertain whether the HLC should be involved in the job of tourism at all. Laky told her colleagues she considered marketing to be the least of her priorities as a member of the Historic Landmark Commission. Laky said she preferred to trust the judgment of heritage marketing director Betty Baker, who was also in the audience of the meeting.

Laky found commissioners agreed on her assessment of Baker, if not the role the tourism subcommittee should play. Commissioner Julia Bunton said she trusted Baker, too, but that the committee could serve as a vehicle to focus marketing efforts on the rich diversity and heritage of the city. Heritage marketing is “hugely important to the Landmark Commission,” Dowd told Laky.

Dowd added that the success of heritage marketing boosted bed taxes that led to more support for the HLC’s grants and programs. The success of heritage marketing and historic preservation is intertwined. Dowd added that heritage marketing was once about half of the commission’s work.

Baker told commissioners the tourism committee could be successful if members remembered they served in an advisory role to convention and visitor bureau staff. If members could take a “may we” attitude, Baker said, it could cement the relationship between the committee and ACVB staff members. Baker told commissioners she had the tough job of selling ideas that might not get sold. “I face y’all and I face them, and sometimes I don’t like either one of you,” Baker said.

Baker asked commissioners to pick their battles with heritage marketing issues. With bed taxes falling, the budget at the ACVB will be tighter than ever, she warned. She added that the commission would do better to walk softly and carry a big stick. “You create your own credibility,” Baker told the commissioners.

A vote to keep the tourism subcommittee passed 3-1, with Laky abstaining. Laky said the vote was premature and she could not vote on the tourism committee issue until the goals of the Historic Landmark Commission were more clearly defined. Laky also abstained from further votes on the schedule and purpose of the subcommittee.

Commissioners agreed the tourism committee would meet quarterly and that meetings would be driven by the convention and visitor's bureau schedule. The goal would be to provide dialogue between the committee and the convention bureau staff on marketing ideas.The first meeting is to be scheduled in late October or early November.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bond proposal . . . Council Member Beverly Griffith carried her campaign to limit impervious cover to the Save Barton Creek Association last night, suggesting it is time to have a bond election on open space and affordable housing. Griffith tried unsuccessfully to get bonds for parks and affordable housing included in the city’s November 2000 bond package. Voters did approve $13.4 million in funds for green space acquisition and $150 million in road funds. She pointed out that Travis County already has a bond committee considering proposals for this November’s ballot, saying the city should set up a citizens bond committee also . . . Planning Commission tonight . . . This evening’s agenda includes a number of items postponed over the past few meetings, including consideration of a variance to allow development on property owned by Congressman Lloyd Doggett to cross a critical water quality zone of Bull Creek. The commission will also revisit a recommendation to the City Council on the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan and the Hyde Park Baptist Church’s place in that neighborhood. Zoning to implement the Dawson Neighborhood Plan is also on the agenda . . . If you missed us, you weren’t alone . . . Monday’s planned edition of In Fact Daily did not arrive on your electronic doorstep because the editor’s flight was delayed by thunderstorms. We will be with you for the rest of the long, hot summer.

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